New California State Legislation Honors the Dignity of Transgender Prisoners

Despite the fact that transgender and gender non-conforming people have recently become more visible in the media and popular culture, the realities for street-based, poor, black and brown and disabled trans women remain the same. Trans people continue to face discrimination from traditional housing, employment and healthcare forcing many trans people into alternative street economies like sex work, drug sales and whatever other work people can find. As a result of being pushed out of these traditional systems, trans people, especially trans women of color, become easy targets for police violence and criminalization.

Across California, and nationally, trans people are funneled into state prisons, detention centers and county jails—often criminalized for our survival in a world that does not want us to exist. While incarceration is violent and unsafe for everyone, trans people face extreme conditions while locked up, including unsafe housing, physical/emotional/sexual assault, lack of access to basic transition health care and a refusal to be recognized by our chosen names and genders.

To address some of these issues and provide relief for our trans and gender non-conforming loved ones inside, a coalition has formed to work on legislation benefiting trans prisoners between the Transgender, Gendervariant, Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), the St. James Infirmary, the Transgender Law Center (TLC) and the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP). This year, the coalition is running SB 310: the Name and Dignity Act for Incarcerated Trans People. The bill, authored by Sen. Toni Atkins (D San Diego), would make it possible for trans people in custody to file for a legal name and/or gender marker change on their identification documents and would ensure that they are recognized as such while incarcerated. While this is only one small step in demanding safety and liberation for trans people inside and outside of prison walls, it will offer some respite by forcing the prison system to refer to trans people by their true name and gender.

Currently, trans people in prison must have a legal name and/or gender marker change request approved by the warden. Trans people trying to use the current process are either sent through so many administrative circles that they give up or they are flat-out denied. Even if it were actually possible for an incarcerated trans person to change their name and gender, they would still be referred to as their original name and their new name as an “AKA.” Only one trans person has been approved for a legal name and gender marker change and that was due to a lawsuit, not through the existing process. “As of now, these incarcerated men use my first name as a weapon to try to belittle and embarrass me.” An anonymous trans woman currently incarcerated in California who has not been able to access a legal name and gender marker change, protected for her own safety from retaliation.

SB 310 is crucial to the safety and well being of trans people for two major reasons. First, this bill is a re-entry concern. When trans people try to apply for jobs, housing, health care or government subsidies and have identification documents that does not match their gender presentation they are subject to discrimination, refusal of service and sometimes violence. Nearly one-third of respondents in a 2015 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality, “The U.S. Trans Survey,” of 25,000 trans people across the country who have shown an ID with a name or gender that did not match their gender presentation were verbally harassed, denied benefits or service, asked to leave or were assaulted.

People coming out of prison already have added barriers in accessing their basic needs, and this bill would greatly reduce some of those barriers. Second, this bill is integral to honoring trans people’s dignity while incarcerated. Trans people face immense daily violence inside prisons. Nearly one in six transgender people report having been incarcerated and transgender people are 13 times more likely to be assaulted by other prisoners than non-transgender prisoners. If passed, SB 310 would give dignity to people experiencing extreme dehumanization.

We know that there is a hard fight ahead of us to ensure that SB 310 passes this year and we need all the help we can get. You can support this crucial legislation by contacting your state legislator and asking them to vote YES on SB 310. You can also talk to people in your community about the need for more protections of trans people’s rights inside and outside of prison. Even though the future looks grim for oppressed people these days, together we will win. ≠